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Barbie for sale: the story behind the ‘biggest collection in the world’

By Christopher Proudlove ©

Barbie No 1

Like most of the bargains I buy on impulse, I knew it would come in useful eventually. We were browsing in a shop selling remaindered books and on the basis that one day I felt sure I would need to write about collecting Barbie dolls, the big, glossy pink encyclopaedic guide to the subject at half the recommended retail price was a must-have. That was five years ago. Since then “The Collectible Barbie Doll” by Janine Fennick has sat on my bookshelf gathering dust.

Click here for a Barbie (and Ken) photoshoot

The news that top auctioneers Christie’s are to sell “one of the most significant and complete collections of Barbie dolls ever to come onto the market” meant my bookshop investment was about to pay dividends. My only regret, judging by the estimates in the Christie’s sale, was not investing in a stash of the dolls themselves. But believe me, buying the book was embarrassing enough.

Fact is, the September 26 auction will offer some 4,000 dolls representing what is thought to be the largest privately-owned collection in the world. It spans the entire history of Barbie, her family, friends and fashion during the second half of the 20th-century. The collection is expected to realise more than £100,000.

Until I delved into the pages of “Collectible Barbie”, I had no idea just how complex Barbie’s world was. In a generation, the 11 and a half-inch vinyl child’s doll became an international icon. But although she was originally advertised as A Teenage Fashion Model, Barbie was inspired by something about as far away from a child’s toy that it’s possible to get.

Americans toy manufacturers Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot were on holiday in Europe with their children Barbara and Ken, when they saw in a shop in Switzerland a provocative novelty doll intended for men. The doll was called Bild Lili and was based on the sexy character of the same name in a cartoon strip in the German newspaper Bild.

In 1945, Elliott and his business partner, Harold “Matt” Matson had formed a small company, calling it “Mattel” by combining their names. At first they made picture frames but soon realised that toys were more lucrative. Ruth Handler was later to become president of the company. She saw Bild Lili’s commercial potential and purchased several examples, each in a different outfit, to take home.

The inspiration came to her as she watched her daughter play with paper dolls. Rather than pretending they were babies, little Barbara was imagining them in grown-up roles. As a result, Ruth decided to make a doll based on a young woman that little girls could dream about becoming. Barbie, named after Barbara, was unveiled by Mattel at New York’s annual Toy Fair in February 1959.

Initial skepticism resulted in poor orders from toy and department store buyers but during the first year of production, 351,000 dolls were sold. There was also criticism. Detractors said Barbie’s voluptuous figure was based on male fantasy. Ruth stuck to her guns but over the years, Barbie underwent a gradual change to reflect changes in standard and current fashion.

The first-ever Barbie had V -shaped eyebrows and vivid red lips and nails. Wearing a black and white striped knitted swimsuit, she looks distinctly similar to Bild Lili. However, the late 1950s saw the beginning of the trend that still strongly influences today’s designers and Barbie and her wardrobe encapsulated this perfectly.

She started following fashion and teenage lifestyle trends, eventually becoming known for blazing her own fashion trail. The Christie’s sale charts her progress. A Barbie Number 1 is estimated at £800-1,200 but later on in 1959, she wore designer outfits such as “Gay Parisienne” which featured the famous “balloon-line skirt” conceived by Hubert de Givenchy (estimate: £400-600), while in 1960, “Sweater Girl” featured a knitted twin-set reminiscent of Lana Turner’s skirt and sweater appeal, (estimate: £80-100).

Barbie Trivia

  • Ruth Handler was born Ruth Mosko on November 4 1916 in Denver, Colorado the daughter of Polish immigrant parents. She died on 27th April 2002 in Los Angeles, California.
  • Barbie’s boyfriend Ken is named after Ruth Handler’s son
  • Barbie has had more than 95 careers – from rock star to palaeontologist and Presidential candidate
  • The first Barbie doll sold for $3
  • Barbie is sold in more than 150 countries.
  • Three Barbie Dolls are sold somewhere in the world every second
  • Barbie has represented 45 different nationalities
  • Barbie has had over 43 pets including 21 dogs, 14 horses, three ponies, six cats, a parrot, a chimpanzee, a panda, a lion cub, a giraffe and a zebra
  • Barbie’s full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts
  • Over one billion outfits and pairs of shoes have been produced since 1959 for Barbie and her friends, using 105 million yards of fabric

Coco Chanel’s influence can clearly be seen in “Fashion Luncheon” (c. 1966) featuring a Jackie Kennedy-style suit (estimate: £80-100), and “Solo in the Spotlight” featuring a Balenciaga-inspired gown from a design in 1951 (estimate: £70-100).
Other highlights from this important era include “Enchanted Evening” inspired by Grace Kelly’s sumptious evening gown which she was photographed wearing in Life Magazine, January 1956, (estimate: £60- 80).

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Barbie following the trends of London’s pop culture and taking inspiration from the “Flower Power” movement. Mattel even produced a “Twiggy” Barbie inspired by the waif-like style icon in 1967 (estimate:£80-100). Barbie fashions included “palazzo pajama” pant suits, the zany glitz of the “disco” era, hot pants, mini-skirts and flares.

By the 1980s, Barbie’s original fans had reached their twenties and thirties, and Barbie collecting began to attract adults as well as little girls and in the 1990s, some of the world’s most famous designers such as Bob Mackie, Givenchy, Versace, Vera Wang, Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Dior began creating fashions specially for the toy, setting a new standard with over-the-top glamour for Barbie featuring stunning gowns of sequins and beads.

The Christie’s collection is being sold by Ietje Raebel, herself a part time fashion designer who was born in Utrecht in 1921. She started buying the dolls in the early 1960s, originally as playthings for her daughter Marina, but her love of clothes and fashion took over and she began to collect Barbie herself.

Once Marina was a teenager, she joined her mother in collecting virtually every Barbie in existence, both vintage and current examples on the market at the time. Between them, they amassed the largest Barbie collection in private hands.

It was Ietje Raebel’s dream to turn their collection into a private museum, but she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease in 2002 and the dream has never been realised.

The sale is at Christie’s South Kensington and is one of a series being marketed as 20th Century Week (Click here for the online catalogue). Other sales include: 20th Century British and European Decorative Arts (Tuesday September 26); Vintage Film Posters; Modern Decorative Prints and 20th Century Fashion and Accessories (Wednesday September 27) and Modern Design (Thursday September 28).

Picture shows: The first ever Barbie, dating from 1959. She’s estimated at £800-1,200 in the Christie’s sale

Click here for a slideshow of further images

© 2006 All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Barbie · Juvenalia · Toys

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